Hanna Fenichel Pitkin died at her home on May 6, 2023. She was Professor Emerita of Political Science at UC Berkeley, a world-renowned political theorist and extraordinary teacher and mentor.
Pitkin was born in Berlin in 1931 to Jewish-German parents. Fleeing Nazi Germany first for Oslo and then Prague, the family emigrated to the United States in 1938, where they settled in Los Angeles. Pitkin moved between UCLA and UC Berkeley for both her undergraduate and graduate studies; she completed her Ph.D in Political Science at UC Berkeley in 1961. She taught at Berkeley, San Francisco State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison before returning to Berkeley in 1966 as its first female ladder rank faculty member. Pitkin formally retired in 1997 but continued to teach and mentor graduate students for another dozen years.
Professor Pitkin’s political theory interests and research ranged broadly, and included the history of European political thought, language philosophy, psychoanalysis, second wave feminist theory, and fiction. She rose to international prominence with her first book (based on her dissertation), The Concept of Representation (1967), a rigorous yet readable study of political representation which she divided into formal, symbolic, descriptive and substantive elements and also rendered as suffused with paradox. The book became influential across the field of political science and remains so today; in 2003, Pitkin was awarded the prestigious Johann Skyette Prize –sometimes called the “nobel” in Political Science—for the work. Her next book, Wittgenstein and Justice (1972) was also pathbreaking, as it brought the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein to the study of political concepts. The practice she introduced and pursued in the book shaped a new approach to political theory and was influential for several generations of graduate scholars and students. In 1984, Pitkin brought a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis to close textual study in Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the thought of Niccolo Machiavelli. And in 1998, she settled accounts with Hannah Arendt, a thinker who was equal parts important and trying for her. The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of "the Social" is a sustained critical engagement with Arendt’s anti-Marxism and disparagement of society and the social in modernity. Professor Pitkin’s last and unfinished book was on the concept of authority. She worked on the manuscript until 2021. Pitkin never used a computer or a cell phone. She composed everything on a manual typewriter or longhand.
Professor Pitkin was a dedicated, accomplished and widely admired teacher of undergraduate and graduate students. She could be intimidating in the classroom not only because of her brilliance and acumen, but due to her willingness to tolerate long silences in seminars and her unflinching and copious critical commentary on written work. This effect, however, was balanced by her warmth, humor, and undying love of puns and play. Moreover, Pitkin understood better than most how powerful pedagogical authority could be, and she was measured and responsible in deploying it. She cared profoundly about the development of student capacities and was a devoted mentor, continuing to give advice to graduate students long into her retirement. She won UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982.
A wide selection of Professor Pitkin’s writings is collected in Hanna Fenichel Pitkin: Politics, Justice, Action (Routledge, 2016), edited by Dean Mathiowetz. The volume also features an introduction to her work by Mathiowetz and an interview he conducted with her.
A 2014 interview with Harvard professor of political theory Nancy Rosenblum can be read or listened to here.
We invite friends whose lives Hanna touched to leave a note of tribute or remembrance HERE.